By Annie Fowler
The uneven blacktop is gone. So are the weeds growing in the middle of the court, and the basketball hoops that had no nets.
In their place is a quality playing surface, complete with green keys and gold free-throw lines. The baskets are reinforced to withstand even the mightiest of player.
And, in a couple of weeks, the LED lights will be operational, bringing night basketball back to Columbia Playfield in Richland.
None of the above would have been possible without a $50,000 donation from 1963 Richland High School graduate Jim House, who spent countless hours honing his skills on the courts before he became a star player for coach Art Dewald’s Bombers.
“This facility looks amazing,” said Richland Parks and Recreation Commissioner Aaron White. “Thanks to Mr. House and his donation. I hope to see a lot of use come out of it. It has not looked this good in a long time.”
House, along with about 100 of his 1963 classmates, Richland basketball players from the 1950s to present, and community members were in attendance Sept. 8 when the courts were officially opened to the public.
“They have never looked so good,” Richland Mayor Pro-Tem Terry Christensen told House. “It is an amazing thing you did. We are so grateful. This is so important for our youth.”
House, who now lives in Spokane, continued to play basketball until Parkinson’s slowed him down in 2012. He made the donation to the city in February after seeing the poor condition of the courts.
“What I saw was the opportunity to pay back the community of coaches, teachers, parents, mentors and friends,” House told the city in February. “It represents the chance for youngsters to act out their dreams, and for old gladiators to face off one more time.”
With House’s donation, the city had adequate funds to apply for a grant from the U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development for additional money to complete the project.
The city received $100,000, and a plan was put in motion.
Tapani Inc. of Richland, did a majority of the work, with the city using their workers for part of the labor for the $150,000 project.
“The grant would not have been available if not for his donation,” said Richland Parks and Public Facilities Director Joe Schiessl. “We are pretty proud of how it turned out, and are grateful for the community turning out and supporting Jim today.”
House was not able to show off his once brilliant basketball skills, but he shared a story from his youth.
“One of my most memorable moments at this site occurred in the summer of 1961,” he said. “Theartis Wallace and I were shooting baskets at one end of the courts when Bomber stars Bob Frick and Mike McKeown joined in. I had not met them before. So without introductions and very little chatter, we played 2-on-2.
“I don’t recall who won the games, but I thought Thea and I passed the test and were worthy Bombers.”
The 6-foot-3 House led the Bombers to state in 1962 and ’63, where they placed third both times. He went on to play basketball at Washington and Brigham Young University.
House left BYU for the Marines (1967-71), where he reached the rank of captain. He earned a bronze star for valor in 1970.
After the Marines, he returned to BYU, got his degree and went to work for Exxon as an auditor.
Jim Mattis, a 1968 Richland grad and the U.S. Secretary of Defense, was not able to attend the the ceremony, but he sent a comment that was shared by the city.
“Those courts achieved near religious status, and it was like entry into a sacred realm for coming of age to even attend phys ed on them,” Mattis wrote. “The entire school seemed to show up for the basketball games, as well as most of the adults in town seemed to be there. Richland didn’t always win state, but to win state, any town/school had to beat Richland to get there.”
C.W. Brown, who played on Richland’s 1958 state championship team, gave the courts his seal of approval.
“This is where we started,” he said. “Nothing was smooth and the ball went everywhere, but it was a good time. It made you tough and ready to go. Hopefully they take care of it. This doesn’t happen every day.”
The delight in House’s eyes was apparent as he watched the current Richland boys and girls players break in the courts.
“All I wanted was something that was first class,” House said. “This is nice. I hope I can drive by on a Saturday and see a game going. If not, it would be a shame.”
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